Elvis Costello & Nick Lowe, Meadowbrook Ampitheater, June 28, 2023

speak up for beauty

Elvis Costello & Nick Lowe, Meadowbrook Ampitheater, June 28, 2023

I remain amazed at the way music can catapult you within a millisecond into instant, unabashed joy. Wednesday night, when Nick Lowe walked onstage at this rinky-dink, summer camp excuse for a shed known as Meadowbrook Amphitheater and launched into the intro for “So It Goes.” I could feel the molecules in my brain shift, stand at attention. Did I know that I remembered each and every one of the exactingly crafted lyrics to this song by heart and could sing them with precision? I don’t know that I could have answered that question before that moment, but the verdict was a resounding yes. It felt almost pathological to be reciting a song from 1976 with such gusto and precision but it was this mixture of YES and OMG I LOVE THIS FUCKING SONG. I am both pleased and annoyed to realize it needs to be on my list of “Best Rock and Roll Songs About The Music Business1”.

Nick is once again backed by Los Straightjackets, whose shtick of wearing luchador masks made them one of the smarter people in the venue this evening, with an air quality reading of VERY UNHEALTHY2. I have to restrain myself from yelling BASHER like we are pals. It feels like seeing an old friend where I am just so happy to see them again I can’t get over it. The phones came out to film “Cruel to be Kind,” everyone sings along, and he gets what was clearly an unexpected standing ovation at the song’s conclusion, after which Nick says something like, “Thank you for that very nice - clap - but we only have one more song.” They close with “I Knew The Bride (When She Used to Rock and Roll)” and I had to restrain myself from doing a web search in the middle of the song to see the status of Billy Bremner and Terry Williams because I feel like we need a Rockpile reunion tour. I would go to the UK for this. 

Elvis & Steve

Elvis Costello is one of those musicians who is so phenomenally talented I find myself surprised by how much each and every time I see him. He is one of the first artists with whom I felt like I had accompanied through the many twists and turns of his career and either liked the records (most of the time) or didn’t, but, you know, hung in there because he’d earned it. He’s wearing a watch cap and brown trousers and a dark blue jacket and looks more like a night watchman or a gas station attendant than a rock and roll singer, and the first thought in my head was A very ‘75 Hammersmith vibe going on here. But then I chided myself for always needing to bring things back to Bruce Springsteen in some fashion (hey), only for Elvis to shortly thereafter literally tell a long story about discovering Bruce in the record store in 1975 and then going to play in Asbury Park in 1977 and relaying a very accurate story about what AP was like back then (I would not have told him to wander the boardwalk alone at night, tbh). When he was telling the story, the little voice in my brain began to chatter: Are you sure it was the Pony? Most of the punk-adjacent bands played at the Fast Lane3. I know i am the only person in this venue feeling the need to fact-check this otherwise delightful recitation but will note that there was a scattering of applause for the mention of the Pony4.

I had literally no idea what the point of this Elvis tour was when I bought my ticket. I bought the ticket because it was him and Nick Lowe and I had some fantasy in my head that they’d do some songs together. I was not a fan of the last Elvis go-round even though I saw it twice, I just felt like he was doing too much at the expense of the actual compositions. But, you know, you go and then decide not to go to the next one. I was joking before the show that the stage setup, with these five large round lighting devices on poles at the back of the stage was oddly reminiscent of what Bob Dylan’s stage looks like these days, and hilariously made sure to get a few shots of resident guitar genius and absolute snack Charlie Sexton with the lights behind him to make my point on Instagram. But after seeing this show, I need to say that I do not think that any of this is accidental.

snack time

This is a much less physical show than the last tour I saw. It’s not like Nick’s set, where every song was at a much slower tempo than the originals -- Elvis still opened with “Mystery Dance,” which is a declaration, shots fired, and setting a decided mood. But he sat down for at least half the show, which didn’t detract from the overall energy because that move created an atmosphere of decided focus and intent. Elvis is always focused, but this was more of an exploratory, let’s see what I can do with this kind of vibe, a mix of jam band and quasi-improvisatory jazz ensemble. He’s tinkering with the songs, he’s starting to pry them apart at the seams to see what’s inside and what he can do with it. Hot damn.

That’s why you want/need someone like Charlie Sexton who can flawlessly follow you wherever you decide to go, fill in the guitar riffs when Elvis doesn’t feel like it or wants to be doing something else, and then, when he does decide to remind us that he is a severely underrated guitar player, has an elevated foil to go up against. Charlie Sexton was the only person on that stage who did not look like he was anxiously watching Elvis to see what the hell he was going to do next. I definitely saw Pete Thomas mouth “what??” at least once. Even Steve Nieve had his hands full trying to follow Elvis’ muse -- some of that was simply because it appeared as though the keyboard setup made it physically hard to see him when he was sitting down. But all of this uncertainty and tentative but careful experimentation made for an absolutely riveting show, and I’m now sorry I’m not seeing more of these. I appreciate, yet again, that Detroit audiences appreciate and respect rock and roll so they were paying attention and not talking through the whole fucking thing.

One of the best examples of what I think Elvis is trying to accomplish with this tour is a song being referred to as “Like Licorice On Your Tongue,” which he started playing live in 2022 and claimed it was the b-side of a record he’d found in Texas, except that no one yet has found this record or the original artist. We have to take it at face value, because literally no one except the musicians onstage know what the song should sound like. I’d love to know what in this particular number is so mesmerizing to him.

I generally think “Alison” is overrated and it is not a favorite of mine, because I feel like it can get too cloying and it’s a song for a young man to sing. But it was crisply executed tonight, and I believed him. He mentioned during the song that he had borrowed the music from various Motown compositions and he had always wanted to sing one particular song but wasn’t brave enough to do it, but he’d do it tonight. The song in question was “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me,” the Supremes and the Temptations together, and, just -- wow. Yes. Of course. It’s interesting to think now about how much he always idolized the great songwriters of Motown and Philly and how at odds that was made to seem with the idea of punk rock, when I’m not sure anyone ever said that they were -- I remember Elvis being on David Letterman telling a story about getting to meet the Holland Brothers in Los Angeles and how he was so shocked that they were there that he didn’t get to tell them how great he thought they were.

[It’s a great interview and the story is at about 11:30]

He was using one of those old vintage stand-up mics on previous tours and that’s still hanging around (even if he’s using it sitting down) and he gave us “Accidents Will Happen” with that mic, and it was yet another similarity to recent Bob. I don’t know if Elvis ever thought he’d be crooning that song to audiences 40-some years after writing it, but I think it’s a good example of how deeply constructed the bones of his songs are at their essence. It was always about songcraft, but hidden under layers of fire and angst and anger and sheer frenetic energy. The songs were always the songs. They’re great songs. I love the moment when he gets the crowd to sing the refrain back at him, and how he and the band figure out how to play off of it based on what they get. The interlude with the vintage mic made my seat priceless because you could hear his unamplified voice along with the amplified one, and I’ve watched him do this before -- the one that sticks in my head is seeing him at the old Forest Hills Stadium on the Imperial Bedroom tour, there was a stage rush and I ended up on the rail (it was more like pieces of plywood than an actual crowd barrier, ah, the 80s) and he was singing “Kid About It” and stepped back slightly and it was unamplified and immediate and intoxicating. I have seen a lot more concerts and life since then, but it is still the kind of moment I remain in disbelief that I am lucky enough to witness at a live show.

50,000 fans can’t be wrong

But I think the most definitive moment of the show was “We Are All Cowards Now,” which he prefaced by saying “We’re gonna sing a spiritual for you.” Hey Clockface came out during the pandemic when I could barely focus and I didn’t hear what I heard in it Wednesday night and what I would have expected to hear in a song where anyone is using tape loops and other effects, and at first I thought it was a cover because it sure sounds like it came right out of the Gamble and Huff songbook. And he’s trying to emotionally deliver the song and make sure that it is musically all together and none of it is guaranteed, he’s trying to make it work and make it meaningful, making it come from the heart, and the band are following him and Charlie Sexton is behind his shades and Steve is under a straw boater with his eyes glued to him and Pete Thomas and Davey Faragher are doing that invisible link thing that the best rhythm sections do. It’s a little tentative but it’s also jaw-dropping, and I think it’s the feeling that he and they are kind of edging themselves along this particular edge that makes it so stunning. These are the unknowable, unplannable moments that you go to live concerts to witness. My musical life would have been lesser for not seeing it. I am so grateful that I have this relationship with Elvis’ music and that I have seen him perform live in so many different eras of his career. I hope he keeps going. I’m glad he’s still doing this.

  1. Long Live Rock by the Who, Starry Eyes by the Records, Danny Says by the Ramones, and I’m not giving you the rest

  2. I had planned on wearing a mask until the concert started as some kind of compromise of prudence and comfort, and when the air didn’t feel that bad -- it felt worse in my house -- I dispensed with it and didn’t realize until I was in the parking lot after the show that I felt like someone had taken a sledgehammer to my chest. It is the reason this newsletter is a day late because all I could do yesterday was sleep.

  3. It was the Pony, they played two shows the week before Elvis got himself banned from playing SNL.

  4. The Venn diagram for the overlap of these two fanbases is small but not insignificant.